Chapter 16: The Three Mothers
"But that's... that's impossible..."
Dario shook his head, one of those rare goofy smiles lighting up his face as he tried to take it in, taking it pretty well under the circumstances, all told.
"A great, mystical secret covered and sealed with six rings. And from them emanated air, water and fire. And from them are born Fathers, and from the fathers, descendents..." Our host, Adam Simon, narrowed his eyes, reading slowly and carefully from the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation. Adam was a fine screenwriter in his own right and the director of a weird and wonderful low-budget brain surgery movie Brain Dead, starring the two Bills, Pullman and Paxton, and sporting a plot that was a virtual dry run for Pi, without the pretension. Despite his years in the trenches turning around such noted epics as Carnosaur and Body Chemistry II on a dime, our host was a man of considerable taste and no mean intellect, who possessed one of the finest private libraries west of Arkham and knew more about the nuts and bolts of the kabbalah than myself and il maestro could fathom in a month of Sundays.
"But I had no idea. It is... unbelievable... all of this... incredible, fantastical!"
"Go on. Tell him the rest."
I turned away as Adam took a deep breath, adjusting his specs. It was the day before Hallow'een and a full moon hung over the shining Pacific and the LA basin, traffic seething along the PCH far below, part of another world separated from us by more than geographic distance. I had been firmly ensconced in Adam's guestroom all summer, preparing The Island of Dr. Moreau and enjoying the seclusion of his crumbling, open-plan hacienda just off Big Rock that had become a veritable home away from home. Part of the building had slipped down the hillside in the previous earthquake and one side of the lounge was now somewhat lower than the other, a split-level arrangement that gave rise to our affectionate nickname - 'the crack house'.
The original icon of La Moreneta, Our Lady of the New World, was perched on an impromptu shrine overlooking the bay and since her installation had presided over a swarm of Mexican killer bees, a second quake, the Malibu fire which had reduced every other house in the vicinity to a gutted stub and the subsequent mudslides, rocking backwards and forwards on her pedestal but never giving an inch, seemingly extending her implacable grace to all that surrounded her. It was a precarious perch but on a clear day you could see as far as Point Dume, it came rent-free and above all, I was happy there.
I was in love or at least I thought I was, cresting my fifteen minutes of fame, at the peak of my powers and on the brink of the biggest feature film project of my career, the eternal uncatchable dream so close I could taste it. What could possibly go wrong with a scenario like that?
"The Tetragrammaton actually only relates to the Ten Sefirot. There is, however, an aspect of creation that existed before the Sefirot. In the language of the Kabbalists, this is known as the Universe of Chaos (Tohu). In this state, the Vessels, which were the proto-Sefirot, could neither interact nor give to one another. Since they could not emulate God by giving, they were incomplete and could therefore not hold the Divine Light. Since they could not fulfil their purpose, they were overwhelmed by the Light and 'shattered'. This is known as the 'Breaking of Vessels'..."
"The Breaking of Vessels; the broken shards of these Vessels fell to a lower spiritual level and subsequently became the source of all evil. It is for this reason that chaos is said to be the root of evil."
"And this book is how old?" Dario inclined his head a little closer, not understanding where any of it was heading, but liking the sound of it more and more.
"It's without question the oldest and most mysterious of all Kabbalistic texts. I think the first commentaries were written in the tenth century, but the text itself is quoted as early as the sixth. References to the work appear as far back as the first century and tradition attests to its existence even in pre-Biblical times."
"So, it's the business, right? The motherload. The Ur-text." I prompted.
"The root of all evil..." whispered il maestro and he said it in such a way that Adam and I sat as if turned to stone. It was a voice that had haunted us since we were teenagers, the voice of the maniac in half a dozen giallios, the voice of the one and only, inimitable Dario Argento and although we loved him dearly, he could still scare the crap out of us sometimes without even knowing it. He was just wrapping up Trauma at the time and a VHS dub of the workprint rested on the coffee table beside a copy of Mystery of the Cathedrals and the official guidebook to the Mountain of Montserrat.
Trauma was Dario's first purely American work and Asia's debut in the leading role had brought something new and faintly unsavoury to the mix. The Tom Savini severed heads looked a li'l rubbery and some of the ungraded photography unduly murky, but it was hard to judge in it's raw, unfinished state so we avoided comment, dutifully waiting for il maestro to wave his wand and work his usual magic, to somehow smooth over the rough edges and transmute base matter into gold...
"The three Mother letters, AMSh, also spell out the Hebrew word Emesh, meaning 'yesternight'. This occurs in the verse, "You slept last night (emesh) with my father (Genesis 19:34)". The word emesh also denotes deep impenetrable gloom, as in the verse, "Gloom, waste and desolation (Job 30:3)". This is the inky gloom that existed before creation, in the Universe of Chaos, the 'yesternight' before the Sefirot were brought into being. At least according to what Laban told Jacob..."
Adam's white labrador, Merlin, snarled, getting up and shaking himself as if hearing a coyote calling out in the Malibu dark somewhere just below human audio range.
"The Three Mothers represent the reconciliation of opposites, but as there is logically no way in which opposites can be reconciled, they represent a mystery that cannot be penetrated by logic."
"'Sealed with six rings', remember? 'The script which is written in the King's name and sealed with the king's ring cannot be reversed (Esther 8:8)'."
"As in the Seal of Solomon, right? Bringing us back to the goddam pentagram!"
Dario shook his head, trying to follow the elision.
"The three Mother letters, AMSh, represent cause, effect and their synthesis. Shin is cause, Mem is effect and Alef is the synthesis between the two opposites. Three Mothers, AMSh, in the Universe, are air, water, fire. Heaven was separated from fire. Earth was created from water and air from breath decides between them..."
"Suspiriorum... the breath..."
"Well, in the simplest physical terms 'water' represents matter, 'fire' is energy and 'air' is the space that allows the two to interact. On a somewhat deeper physical level, fire, water and air represent the three basic physical forces. 'Fire' is the electromagnetic force through which all matter interacts. The atomic nucleus, however, consists of like-positive charges, which would repel each other if only electromagnetism existed. There must therefore exist another force, which can bind the nucleus together. This is the 'strong nuclear' or pionic force represented by 'water'. If this nuclear force were to interact with all particles, however, all matter would be mutually attracted together, forming a solid lump denser than a neutron star. On the other hand, even within each elementary particle, there is a need for a cohesive force to counteract the electromagnetic repulsion within the particle itself. This force can be neither electromagnetic nor pionic. This is the 'air', the 'suspiriorum', the third mother representing the weak nuclear force which decides between the other two. It is this force that allows light particles (leptons) to exist."
"What Fulcanelli calls the 'art of light', si?"
"Gotcha. Unscramble the symbolism and what we're really talking about here is sub-atomic structure. According to the publisher, Eugene Canseliet, the real Fulcanelli was an old man working at the Paris gasworks, who had been aging backwards for some years before changing gender. Ridiculous, I know, but at face value the facts check out. At least I can't dismiss Canseliet's claims out of hand."
"And this device he was supposed to have patented?"
"The calorimeter? I dunno. Measures calories as far as I can figure it. Minute heat exchanges. Which is exactly the kind of by-product you could expect from someone carrying out research based on the third law of thermodynamics."
"Sorry. But you have to talk more slowly. My English..."
"Entropy. I mean, according to Einstein, energy cannot be destroyed but according to the third law of thermodynamics, it can dissipate to the point where it can no longer be measured. So long as we're living in a 'flat' universe rather than a closed system and the fabric of space-time continues to expand, so things will continue to get older rather than younger, champagne goes flat, ideas go stale and people die. Figures that if you were trying to find a loophole in the third law, you'd need a device for measuring the unmeasurable, for keeping track of the rate of entropy. Hence the 'calorimeter'."
Sensing il maestro's confusion, Adam pushed back his chair, putting together the makings of another smoke.
"The OSS were given a specific brief to round up everyone in occupied Europe, who knew anything about nuclear power but apparently came up with squat. The CIA have been carrying a file on Fulcanelli for years but the only thing you can be sure of is that he isn't really hiding beneath the floorboards." I nodded. "The real Fulcanelli disappeared just before the war after writing the second book. As far as we know, the third book is only a myth but I brought Elizabeth van Buren's commentary just in case..."
Dario narrowed his dark eyes, paging through the softback edition of Elizabeth’s commentary on Finis Gloraie Mundi, trying to make head or tail of the turgid text; "The end of the glory of the world... 'in ictu occuli', in the blink of an eye..."
"As far as I can work out, the earth seems to be the 'negrido', the black stone that has to pass through the nuclear fires of the third great war; of the alchemical crucible, so to speak, in order to become the whitened Philosophical Stone of the completed Arcanum - what our man refers to as the 'supreme hour' - the time of death for some and martyrdom for others. Granted Elizabeth might be a little nuts but right now her commentary to the third book is all we've got to go on, if the third book exists at all..." Looking over il maestro's shoulder I read slowly and carefully: "The universal spirit incarnated in man exists to teach the Truth, the Word and the Secret. All Christians await the return of Christ, yet he will appear neither before nor after but during the planetary chaos, not in human form but as pure light, a light that will break the cycle of incarnation and bring all of us back to God, an autodafe next to which all the suffering the world has ever seen will be the merest taper. Fulcanelli indicates the cross is the hieroglyph of the alchymical crucible, in which matter is purified and INRI, which signifies exoterically Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, means esoterically 'Igne Natura Renovatur Integra', 'Nature is regenerated or made whole by the fire'."
"So we're... how would you say in this country? Fucked! Bottom line, no?"
"Save the elect. There's a get-out clause, see? No flesh shall be spared save that of the elect. That's what this is. Again in Fulcanelli's words 'a self-censoring secret available only to the elect'. Literally hidden in plain sight!"
"But it is written in code... in pictures..."
"A secret language passed down from God knows when. If the knowledge exists, then it figures it must have come from somewhere to start with. Mythology would have it that the famous soothsayer Tiresias had perfect knowledge of the 'language of the birds', which Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, revealed to him. It is said he was "deprived of his sight". There are penalties, see, for breaking what you call 'silentium', for revealing the secrets of Olympus to mortals, although Tiresias is also supposed lived for 'seven, eight or nine ages of man' and is said to have been successively both man and woman."
"Like Fulcanelli, no? The original alchymical hermaphrodite..."
"No shit. The 'language of the birds' was spoken also by Thales of Miletus, Melampus, Apollonius of Tyanna and Adam's namesake, Simon the magician, who was eventually buried alive by his own congregation, insisting that on the third day he would rise again. He didn't." Adam coughed. "I mean, these are folk stories. Fairytales. Metaphors in their own right. According to the Torah, the language of the birds was spoken before the building of the tower of Babel, an act of hubris which caused the ancient common tongue to become perverted and forgotten by the greater part of humanity."
"Analogous to what the Inca's called the 'Court Language'. The double science, "both sacred and profane". Solomon was the last mortal to have spoken the language of the birds in some apocryphal accounts, but he too forgot it when he lost his seal and was forced to battle Asmodeus to regain his treasure. At least that's what it says in that 15th century magical treatise... where the hell is it now?"
"The 'Lemegeton'? I dunno. You had it last! In the Hebrew versions, he's called Midrashim. He was wounded in the knee before being cast out into the wasteland."
"Right, a devil by any other name, hence the posture of the daemon on the font."
I indicated one of the stills on the tabletop. The grimacing plaster figure glaring down at the floor of the church and the sixty-four black and white flagstones laid out as a chessboard, its corners indicating the cardinal points.
"And what we're doing is like speaking a language without really understanding it! Like, y'know, phonetic English or Italian," murmured Dario under his breath, enough of it connecting to finally make some kind of sense; "a symbolic language we can read in our dreams."
"Who knows where the concept of the motion picture apparatus, the modern mass media even begins. Griffiths and Melies licensed the invention from the Lumiere brothers, who drew their inspiration from Roget's famous pamphlet on fusion frequency, which in turn is derived from the zoetrope or the Jesuit monk Athanasius Kircher's 'moving picture wheel', the 'toy of the devil', the heretical 'illusion of life', shunned for centuries by Islam and the Holy Roman Church. I mean, it figures that the 35mm projector with its Maltese cross configuration, that throws the strip of film past the picture head and the light generated by the burning carbon rod, that, like the Holy of Holies, you may not behold with the naked eye, but which is enclosed within the ark of the projector body, has become the new conveyor of the art of light, that we can find within the mass media and in particular the modern horror film as exemplified in your goddam work the attributes of Dante's ancient common language!"
"Particularly 'Inferno'. The one no one understands..."
"Even the title's on the money."
Dario's smile broadened. Taking a last toke, he stared out over the waves rolling silently in and the distant lights of the LA basin, as if expecting a nuclear flash at any moment.
"C'mon, guys." Adam rose, noticing the headlamps of a stretch nosing its way uncertainly up the dirt track from Big Rock. "I think it's time!"
"Can't keep 'em waiting, dude. We've got about an hour, depending on traffic we should be okay."
Dario paused, catching his breath. John Landis and Joe Dante had arranged for pristine prints of his work to be struck and screened one by one for the top brass at Raleigh Studios. Everyone who was anyone was going to be there and it was il maestro's best chance at an American career. An early draft of Stendahl's Syndrome was on the table and Bridget Fonda was notionally attached. The time had come for il Maestro to show the world what he was really made of, to distinguish himself, to draw the line. And as ever I was along for the ride.
"So the Three Mothers represent more than just the root of evil but the root of matter. The key to the very fabric of what you call space-time? What our world is made of... or at least how it's made!"
"Considering that it's being made by someone or something in the first place. The same way you make movies, only on a far, more sophisticated level. I mean it's three dimensional to start with. Not to mention interactive. You can smell it, taste it, touch it..."
"So who's making it? And why?"
I wasn't used to il maestro asking questions and right now I didn't have any more answers.
"I dunno. But it would explain a lot. Like how these things got into our work without us consciously putting them there in the first place, as well as this whole slide area between fact and fiction. Like there's really no difference between the two any more. Maybe there never was. When you get right down to it, even the fact we're having this conversation is pretty damn unlikely!"
"Is strange, yes? Unlikely." The maestro giggled, clapping me on the back as I ushered him towards the idling stretch.
"Gotta move, man. Gotta move. Never assume any audience is friendly. Particularly this one..."
"Don't forget this!" Adam hurried after us, brandishing the Sefir Yetzirah and the Trauma screener.
"You never know who you might run into out there."
"And if this whole place is an illusion? A programme? What difference does it make?"
"Beats me. But if you know you're being watched, especially if you don't know who's watching, then all that matters is to try and look your best."
And in the spirit of complete honesty, il maestro wasn't looking too good. Right now he looked a l'il stoned and while our conversation had plainly engaged him, he still looked gaunt and painfully thin. Working with American crews in an elusive second-hand language had proved to be trickier than he thought, and the shoot in Minneapolis had taken a lot out of him. He had always had 'issues' with food, but since setting foot in California, he had been under tremendous pressure and I had barely seen him touch a morsel, seemingly so daunted by the size of the portions and the expected protocols of 'taking lunch' with a series of strangers that he didn't know where to even begin, allowing one plate after another to arrive and depart unsullied.
My own allegiances had been challenged by the casting of Dr. Moreau and my precarious position at New Line. Asia was up for the part of 'Aissa the cat lady', but the studio heads were more inclined towards Fairuza Balk, following negative advance word on Trauma. I knew the long knives were out and did what I could to protect him from the malicious gossip spread by lesser mortals, the bellicose Bill Lustig among them, who deliberately misinterpreted and exaggerated Dario's psychosomatic anorexia for their own evil ends, encouraging studio chiefs and distributors to believe utter nonsense, namely that my friend and mentor was either a heroin addict or a closet homosexual (Alan Jones, please stand up), suffering from a sexually transmitted disease. I have no qualms naming names, and in the case of Signor Lustig I have good reason, as I learned later the big man from the Bronx had made similar claims about myself, apparently for no other reason than the fact I had inadvertently bedded a girl he had his eye on. Sweet. But that was ever the way in the Hollywood snakepit, the market where lies are sold. If you're reading this Bill, just remember that line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; "I like big men. When they fall, they fall harder and sometimes they never get up!"
It was a full house at Raleigh studios, black tie and evening dress. Invitation only. I had been there every night of the week and sat through Dario's oeuvre all over again, enjoying the personal introductions and the Q and A that followed. It was like an episode of 'This is Your Life', with members of his old cast and crew popping out of the woodwork at every turn. Like the master I eschewed appearing in public myself and settled anonymously into the third row, content to watch proceedings from a distance.
Inferno had always been a personal favourite of mine for reasons that by now should be more than obvious. I had seen it more times than I could remember and knew every beat by heart like an old, familiar tune. It marked a watershed in il maestro's career, but tonight he would have the chance to turn that around and arrest his declining American fortunes. Tonight he had all the ammunition he needed to finally be justly proud of the film he was presenting and face down his critics.
There were a few walk-outs but that was to be expected, although the remaining viewers were perhaps unusually silent as the Keith Emerson-score played out and the houselights finally went up. Jettisoning his usual reticence, Dario was right at the mike, still clinging to his copy of the Sefir Yetzirah, all ready to knock that curveball right out of the stadium.
"I am very proud of this film. It is perhaps my masterpiece. But the critics they do not understand. When it is released they say it has no plot, no characters but they do not understand it is written in a kind of code... like a secret language."
There was a stony silence. Then someone coughed.
"You mentioned Truffaut earlier", prompted John Landis, sensing the audience's growing uneasiness.
"You mean what he termed 'total cinema?' Essentially a cinema of visual experience?"
"But you cannot analyze or deconstruct this film by conventional means. It is like the work of the alchemist in my story. A symbolic language..." His eyes roved across the auditorium, lighting on a gap in the third row. "Where is Richard ? Richard can explain..."
But I wasn't there.
Just for once I wasn't there. I had seen the movie so many times, I didn't think it mattered if I snuck out after the first couple of scenes. I can't help it if the opening sequences happen to be the ones I like best and like Suspiria, the film doesn't quite sustain the momentum of its initial half hour. I thought I'd make it back in time for the Q and A, but there was a certain young lady involved who must for now remain nameless and I was across the road having a drink with her when Dario needed me most. It may not have been my responsibility to explain my mentor's work for him or to put words in his mouth, but I still feel that like the trusted disciple I was I betrayed him and left him to be fed to the sharks.
And after that things were never quite the same for either of us...